Judge Gordon Sullivan doesn't rob banks, but he once returned a library book late.
They're young, they're in love, and they kill people.
As a young man, I had an infatuation with Sam Peckinpah's violent and bloody elegy for the Western, The Wild Bunch. As I began to seek more information about the production and interpretation of this masterpiece, one other film was often mentioned in the same breath as The Wild Bunch. That film was Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, it was so often mentioned that I intentionally didn't watch it. I knew that if I saw it so recently after The Wild Bunch, it could only fail to meet my expectations, and that wouldn't be fair to a film that has received this much praise. It's been a few years now since I last saw The Wild Bunch, so I looked forward to the chance to watch this Blu-ray version of Bonnie and Clyde. No, I don't think it's better than Peckinpah's film, but it has earned its classic status.
Facts of the Case
This is the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Depression-era bank robbers known for their violence and their desire to disrupt the establishment. The film follows the duo from their first meeting, through the recruitment of their gang, and finally to blood-soaked glory as wanted criminals in four states.
Lots of films find their home eventually, but Bonnie and Clyde is one of those rare films that combine popular, critical, and scholarly appeal into a single package. It's popular because it tells a romantic story that has an effective mix of humor and action (with a few anti-establishment jabs thrown in for good measure). It was (for the most part) a critical success because of the strong presences behind and in front of the camera. Scholars love the film because it still speaks to ideas about domesticity, masculinity, and the road. Although I hesitate to say that Bonnie and Clyde started it all, the film is a useful starting point for the "youth movie" movement that was reinforced by other films like The Graduate and Easy Rider. Without Bonnie and Clyde, we probably wouldn't have The Godfather, Taxi Driver, or even Star Wars. But don't let the pedigree fool you: this isn't a dusty classic that only film buffs trot out to impress their snob friends. Bonnie and Clyde is a living, breathing film, in many ways as vital today as it was on its release forty years ago.
The story is essentially a doomed romance set during the Depression, with Bonnie and Clyde as self-mythologizing folk heroes. The characters rob the banks that have so completely failed the common man. Of course, it's not as simple as that. Sure, they try to only rob banks, and in one memorable scene they ask a bank customer if the money he has is his or the bank's. When he says it's his, they let him keep it. However, an early scene shows they aren't above stealing from a simple grocery store. Clyde tries to pass it off as a necessary evil in light of the Depression, but there is obvious discomfort in the tension between the desire to eat and the desire to not steal from the little guy. Certainly this film romanticizes the facts, and it isn't the most complex and psychological examination of outlaw figures. However, the film strives to head off any overly simplistic view of the duo, either positive or negative.
After viewing the film, I discovered that it had first been offered to François Truffaut and then Jean-Luc Godard, the young lions of the French New Wave. This fact surprised me little, as Bonnie and Clyde plays like the influences of the New Wave come home to roost. A film like Breathless is unafraid to wear its American influence on its sleeve as its doomed hero tries to live the life of a movie gangster, with predictable results. While Godard's film might be more critical of cinema, Bonnie and Clyde are still similarly obsessed with living the free life promised by cinema's outlaws. Their first exchange, while Clyde tries to steal Bonnie's mother's car, shows both characters slyly performing: he the charming but incorrigible rake, she the doe-eyed but steely innocent. Both of these roles come straight out of the movies, and it's fascinating to watch actors play characters who are influenced by actors in the movies.
None of this would work without a top-flight cast, and Bonnie and Clyde produces in spades. Warren Beatty's Clyde is a practical romantic, a character caught in the wrong place and time, and he brings him off beautifully. Faye Dunaway gives Bonnie both brains and beauty; she never lets the audience forget she's both a woman and "one of the boys." The supporting cast is equally fantastic. Gene Hackman, playing Clyde's brother, brings an unbridled joy to his portrayal, while Michael J. Pollard brings a simple innocence to his criminality. Gene Wilder makes a short appearance as an undertaker, and he's hilarious. If you have any doubt about the influence of the Western on Bonnie and Clyde, look no further than Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, played by Denver Pyle. He looks like he stepped out of a thousand cowboy movies, and his pursuit of the Barrow Gang is wonderfully relentless. The scene where he coaxes C.W.'s name out of a suspect is coldhearted brilliance.
One of the most remarked-upon aspects of Bonnie and Clyde is its representation of violence. Yes, if you grew up on Natural Born Killers, then Bonnie and Clyde might seem a little quaint, but for the time it was a very violent and bloody film. Even today, I think Clyde's first shooting retains some of its impact, not because it's a particularly realistic portrayal of a shooting, but because it's unexpected and Clyde's reaction is so effective. The final shooting of Bonnie and Clyde has entered cinematic legend, not only for its violence, but for its mythmaking capabilities. On the one hand, shooting the bandits is a quintessentially American trope. On the other, it's totally Un-American to shoot from cover without any warning. This tension between getting the job done and doing what's right (and American) would take center stage with the conflict in Vietnam. The violence in this film presaged much of the violence of the rest of the century, which goes a long way towards explaining its longevity as a film.
Befitting a classic film, Warner Brothers has rolled out the red carpet for this release of Bonnie and Clyde. Instead of the usual plastic case, the film is presented in a book-like case, with a number of essay on one side, and the disc tray on the other. Very classy. The included essays give production details, behind-the-scenes footage, and promotional material. The single disc houses both the high-definition feature and the standard-definition supplements.
The promotional material promises a digital re-mastering from "restored original film and audio elements," and they aren't lying. The film looks amazing, with very little damage or other print difficulties. The transfer itself is also well-done, with even the slight problem in the print reproduced well. For instance, there is some grain here and there, but on this Blu-ray disc, it looks like grain and not noise. This won't be the first film to reach for to show off your display, but it's certainly ammunition for those trying to convert classic film buffs to hi-def. The audio is presented in its original mono configuration, and it sounds pretty good. I suspect that the occasional flatness I detected was a problem with forty-year-old source material and didn't reflect poorly on the disc. Distortion was absent, and Flatt and Scruggs "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" came through loud and clear, the way it should.
The extras look scant, but these supplements define quality over quantity. The story of both Bonnie and Clydes, real and fictional, are explored in these extras. The real duo is discussed at length in the History Channel documentary "Love and Death: The Story of Bonnie and Clyde." Unsurprisingly, the film deviates from the facts in many respects, but that's what documentaries like this are for. The other main extra is a 65-minute documentary on the making of the film, featuring input from most of the surviving cast and crew. Most of these people went on to fame and fortune after Bonnie and Clyde, so it's fun to watch them reminisce about such an early film. If you're a Warren Beatty fan, you'll probably enjoy his wardrobe tests, and the disc also includes some alternate scenes (although they're subtitled due to missing audio). As Warren Beatty says in an essay included in the case: "There's so much about this movie that people tend to hyperbolize. The real stories—they're even better." Warner Brothers helped prove his point with its generous supplements.
Bonnie and Clyde changed the face of crime, so it's fitting that Bonnie and Clyde changed the face of cinema. Warner Bros. gives us an outstanding high-definition presentation of this classic film, with plenty of supplements to satisfy fans.
They may rob banks, but Bonnie and Clyde is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and Clyde"
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